Leonard Cohen, born Leonard Norman Cohen, September 21, 1934, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, is the singer-songwriter whose spare songs carried an existential bite and established him as one of the most distinctive voices of 1970s pop music.
Already established as a poet and novelist (his first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956), Cohen became interested in the Greenwich Village folk scene while living in New York City during the mid-1960s, and he began setting his poems to music. In 1967 Judy Collins recorded two of his songs, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and that same year Cohen began performing in public, including an appearance at the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival. By the end of the year, he had recorded The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included the melancholy “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” That album was followed by Songs from a Room (1969), featuring the now often-covered “Bird on a Wire,” and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), containing “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a ballad in the form of a letter from a cuckold to his wife’s lover.
The Aristipposian Poet
in celebration of his life in music
September 21 at 6pm EST
Though some did not care for Cohen’s baritone voice and deadpan delivery, he mostly enjoyed critical and commercial success. Leonard Cohen: Live Songs (1973) and New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), which included “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” a frank recollection of a brief sexual encounter with Janis Joplin, further deepened Cohen’s standing as a songwriter of exceptional emotional power. His career then took a decided turn for the worse with the disappointing Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), a collaboration with legendary producer Phil Spector, whose grandiose style was ill suited to Cohen’s understated songs. For most of the 1980s Cohen was out of favour, but his 1988 album, I’m Your Man, included the club hits “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows” and introduced his songwriting to a new generation. In addition, Various Positions (1984) included what became Cohen’s best-known song, “Hallelujah.” Although it did not initially receive much attention, the single gained widespread popularity when covered by Jeff Buckley in 1994. The ballad was later performed or recorded by hundreds of artists and featured in soundtracks of TV shows and films.
After releasing The Future (1992), he retired to a Buddhist monastery outside Los Angeles. He emerged in 1999 and returned to the studio, producing Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). The critically acclaimed documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005) blended interview and archival footage with performances of Cohen’s songs by a variety of musicians.
In 2005 Cohen discovered that his business manager had embezzled some $5 million from his savings, virtually wiping out his retirement fund. While he won a $7.9 million judgment against her the following year, Cohen was unable to recover the money, and he embarked on a concert tour—his first in 15 years—in 2008 to rebuild his finances. One performance from that tour was recorded for the album Live in London (2009), a two-disc set which proved that at age 73 Cohen was as vibrant and vital as ever. The aptly titled Old Ideas (2012) was a bluesy exploration of familiar Cohen themes—spirituality, love, and loss—that eschewed the synthesized melodies of much of Cohen’s post-1980s material in favour of the folk sound of his earliest work. Released just weeks before his death, Cohen’s 14th studio album, You Want It Darker (2016), was received by critics as a late-period masterpiece. For the title track, he posthumously received a Grammy Award for best rock performance. In 2008 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2010 he was honoured with a Grammy for lifetime achievement.
The documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (2019) explores his relationship with Marianne Ihlen, who was considered his muse in the 1960s.
One of the most fascinating and enigmatic — if not the most successful — singer/songwriters of the late ’60s, Leonard Cohen retained an audience across six decades of music-making, interrupted by various digressions into personal and creative exploration, all of which have only added to the mystique surrounding him. Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commanded the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the ’60s who continued to work in the 21st century, which is all the more remarkable an achievement for someone who didn’t even aspire to a musical career until he was in his thirties.
Cohen was born a year before Elvis Presley, and his background — personal, social, and intellectual — couldn’t have been more different from those of the rock or folk stars of any generation. Though he knew some country music and played it a bit as a boy, he didn’t start performing on even a semi-regular basis, much less recording, until after he had already written several books — and as an established novelist and poet, his literary accomplishments far exceeded those of Bob Dylan or most anyone else who one cares to mention in music.
He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in the Montreal suburb of Westmount. His father, a clothing merchant (who also held a degree in engineering), died in 1943, when Cohen was nine years old. It was his mother who encouraged Cohen as a writer, especially of poetry, during his childhood. This fit in with the progressive intellectual environment in which he was raised, which allowed him free inquiry into a vast range of pursuits. His relationship to music was more tentative. He took up the guitar at age 13, initially as a way to impress a girl, but was good enough to play country & western songs at local cafes, and he subsequently formed a group called the Buckskin Boys. At 17, he enrolled in McGill University as an English major. By this time, he was writing poetry in earnest and became part of the university’s tiny underground “bohemian” community. Cohen only earned average grades, but was good enough as a writer to earn the McNaughton Prize in creative writing by the time he graduated in 1955. A year later, the ink barely dry on his degree, he published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), which got great reviews but didn’t sell especially well.
He was already beyond the age that rock & roll was aimed at. Bob Dylan, by contrast, was still Robert Zimmerman, still in his teens, and young enough to become a devotee of Buddy Holly when the latter emerged. In 1961, Cohen published his second book of poetry, The Spice Box of Earth, which became an international success critically and commercially, and established Cohen as a major new literary figure. Meanwhile, he tried to join the family business and spent some time at Columbia University in New York, writing all the time. Between the modest royalties from sales of his second book, literary grants from the Canadian government, and a family legacy, he was able to live comfortably and travel around the world, partaking of much of what it had to offer — including some use of LSD when it was still legal — and ultimately settling for an extended period in Greece, on the isle of Hydra in the Aegean Sea. He continued to publish, issuing a pair of novels, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), with a pair of poetry collections, Flowers for Hitler (1964) and Parasites of Heaven (1966). The Favorite Game was a very personal work about his early life in Montreal, but it was Beautiful Losers that proved another breakthrough, earning the kind of reviews that authors dare not even hope for. (Cohen found himself compared to James Joyce in the pages of The Boston Globe, and across the years, the book has enjoyed sales totaling well into six figures.)
Songs from a Room (1969), was characterized by a spirit of melancholy — even the relatively spirited “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” was steeped in such depressing sensibilities, and the one song not written by Cohen, “The Partisan,” was a grim narrative about the reasons for and consequences of resistance to tyranny that included lines like “She died without a whisper” and included images of wind blowing past graves. Joan Baez subsequently recorded the song, and in her hands it was a bit more upbeat and inspiring to the listener; Cohen’s rendition made it much more difficult to get past the costs presented by the singer’s persona. On the other hand, “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” although as downbeat as anything else here, did present Cohen in his most expressive and commercial voice, a nasal but affecting and finely nuanced performance.
Cohen may not have been a widely popular performer or recording artist, but his unique voice and sound, and the power of his writing and its influence, helped him gain entry to the front rank of rock performers, an odd status for the then 35-year-old author/composer. He appeared at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival in England, a post-Woodstock gathering of stars and superstars, including late appearances by such soon-to-die-or-disband legends as Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. Looking nearly as awkward as his fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, Cohen strummed his acoustic guitar backed by a pair of female singers in front of an audience of 600,000 (“It’s a large nation, but still weak”), comprising equal portions of fans, freaks, and belligerent gatecrashers, but the mere fact that he was there — sandwiched somewhere between Miles Davis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer — was a clear statement of the status (if not the popular success) he’d achieved. (Cohen’s performance of “Suzanne” was one of the highlights of Murray Lerner’s long-delayed 1996 documentary Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival, and his full set was reissued in 2009, both on audio and video formats.)
Already, he had carved out a unique place for himself in music, as much author as performer and recording artist, letting his songs develop and evolve across years — his distinctly non-commercial voice became part of his appeal to the audience he found, giving him a unique corner of the music audience comprising listeners descended from the same people who had embraced Bob Dylan’s early work before he’d become a mass-media phenomenon in 1964. In a sense, Cohen embodied a phenomenon vaguely similar to what Dylan enjoyed before his early-’70s tour with the Band — people bought his albums by the tens and, occasionally, hundreds of thousands, but seemed to hear him in uniquely personal terms. He earned his audience seemingly one listener at a time, by word of mouth more than by the radio, which, in any case (especially on the AM dial), was mostly friendly to covers of Cohen’s songs by other artists.
As was his wont, Cohen spent years between albums, and in 1973 he seemed to take stock of himself as a performer by issuing Leonard Cohen: Live Songs. Not a conventional live album, it was a compendium of performances from various venues across several years and focused on highlights of his output from 1969 onward. It showcased his writing as much as his performing, but also gave a good account of his appeal to his most serious fans — those still uncertain of where they stood in relation to his music who could get past the epic-length “Please Don’t Pass Me By” knew for certain they were ready to “join” the inner circle of his legion of devotees after that, while others who only appreciated “Bird on the Wire” or “The Story of Isaac” could stay comfortably in an outer ring.
By Bruce Eder / Source: all music